Bonfire: the festival of new and flammable improv ideas, from Rapid Fire Theatre

By Liz Nicholls,

How crazy is this?

What if … you were quarantined in a room, and you had to improvise all by yourself — for an entire show? And you didn’t know whether anyone was watching or not? Cut to other members of the ensemble, each improvising in their homes, on a common theme?

Captivated is but one of the dozen original, possibly lunatic experiments in long-form improv coming your way in Rapid Fire Theatre’s online 2021 edition of its Bonfire Festival, opening Friday.

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Flammable improv ideas the company has never tried before are the raison d’être of Bonfire. Some will burn brightly, and show up in future Rapid Fire seasons; some will flame out in spectacular fashion, or maybe even explode. “That’s the fun and the appeal of it!” declares RFT artistic director Matt Schuurman, who’s much more inclined to the affirmative side of showbiz than the cautionary. “It’s always been an idea-generator, a laboratory for us!”

This year’s incarnation of the improv laboratory is the first in Bonfire history to happen exclusively online (it was cancelled in 2020). And the company members, who pitch ideas, have leaned into the medium, says Schuurman, an improviser himself who is one of the theatre scene’s premier video designers. “When the online platform is the venue, how do we play to its strengths? How is the idea served by being online?”

Captivated, for example, is a pandemic version of Hostage, an in-theatre improv in which a single member of an onstage ensemble is selected to leave and improvise alone in a sealed room for 45 minutes, as a video feed cuts randomly in.

Which invites a question: Is it possible to improvise alone? We the people of the pandemic are finding out. Schuurman quotes Wes Borg of the late lamented comedy troupe Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie: “it’s catching a ball you threw yourself.” We get that now, as never before.

Play The Game, an online Rapid Fire Theatre improv. Photo supplied.

Long before COVID Rapid Fire was more savvy and dexterous than other theatre companies with online technology. And, as Schuurman points out, the last year has improved both the quality of the updated platforms and techniques for using them. “Let’s find the fun in the online tools; let’s focus on that!”

Movie Night: A Night At The Movies, for example, is a pandemic re-set of a popular improv in which an episode of a sitcom is projected on the screen, and the ensemble of performers provide the voice-overs. For the 2021 Bonfire RFT’s Paul Blinov finds a film (in the public domain), and the improvisers create, on the spot a new story and all its characters and voices, in synch with the action.

Here’s a nerve-wracking riff on reality, especially tailored to the time: RFT Romance takes its cue from online dating. Literally. It’s an actual first date between two single members of the Rapid Fire ensemble.“It embraces the moment,” says Schuurman, whose well-honed sense of absurdity finds a lot of raw material in our current shared situation.

And speaking as we are of “reality,” if I were a real estate agent I’d be wincing right now; RFT is playing around with the techniques of that industry. In Move That House a self-appointed RFT realtor will take you, the prospective home-owner, through a real property on a virtual tour to see if you’re a good lifestyle fit, and land the sale.

Informercials, too, are a natural for RFT use. Infomercial Hour embraces flashbacks to the lives of ineptitude lived by infomercial stars. Paper Dolls is a re-work of “an old improv classic,” explains Schuurman, “in which one person is the talking head, and another person stands behind playing the arms.” In the Bonfire version “the audiences has the fun of scrolling through possible outfits….”

What will municipal politics (eternal questions of snow clearing, garbage pickup, LRT expansion) be like in the hands of RFT improvisers? Town Hall Time is your chance to find out the entertainment potential, hitherto virtually untapped.

The festival, overall, is a bit smaller, says Schuurman. And Bonfire evenings have one performance instead of a bunch. “It’s logically easier, for one thing. And attention spans are shorter these days, too.” Going online exclusively is not without its challenges, of course. “Listening is one of the biggest,” Schuurman says. And listening is at the heart of really skilful alert improv. The vagaries of internet connection, and the delay functions with certain platforms “can certainly mess with conversation!” In live theatre, the focus of the audience at any time can be determined, by lighting and sound cues and the rest of the theatrical arsenal. Online? Well, the audience is more distractible, and “not everyone’s focal point is the same.”

As usual, thought, the entertainment value of watching deluxe performance take a risk is at the heart of Bonfire. And so is the sense of play. It must be hereditary. Schuurman, who is married to Fringe Theatre’s interim Executive Director Megan Dart, reports that their little daughter Alice is madly in love with her fairground Lego set, a present for her second quarantine birthday. Next up for RFT: Lego improv?


Bonfire Festival 2021

Theatre: Rapid Fire Theatre

Where: online,

Running: Friday through April 24

Tickets and full schedule:

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